Khalil Dewan interviews Summer Ahmed, an official representative of the Southern Transitional Council, otherwise known as Al-Hirak, the movement which seeks to secede from central and northern Yemen.
As tensions rise between warring parties, the southern front has strengthened its resolve for independence. With the United Arab Emirates, a member of the Saudi-led coalition, in full support of the Southern Transitional Council, this poses a challenge to the coalition and the original invitation by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi for its military intervention in Yemen. The following interview covers the Hirak movement's history, vision and conflict dynamics.
KD: Please introduce yourself, and tell me about your position and background with the Southern Transitional Council.
SA: Summer Ahmed, I'm a South Yemeni activist and writer mainly focused on amplifying voices of the marginalised people of South Yemen and the southern movement.
KD: What is the aim of Al-Hirak Movement?
SA: The aim of the movement is to restore the independent state of South Yemen with its full pre-1990 internationally recognised borders.
KD: Can you tell me about the nine different Al-Hirak factions? Do they have different names, objectives and outlook? Where do they operate?
SA: The different factions of Al-Hirak all had the same goal of independence but disagreed on how it would be accomplished. One faction wanted a unilateral declaration of independence, another faction wanted a referendum and yet another said through negotiations with North Yemen, like the negotiations that took place to unite South Yemen and North Yemen. Also, each faction had a different leader which has made it very difficult to create one southern political entity since Al-Hirak was launched in 2007.
These differences and factions are irrelevant now after the historic Aden Declaration and the establishment of the inclusive Southern Transitional Council that brought Al-Hirak and tribal leaders under one entity, one representative body for the south supported and approved by the majority of southerners.
KD: How does Al-Hirak Movement envision an end to the Yemen conflict?
SA: The movement believes that solving the southern issue is fundamental to ending the conflict in Yemen. The current conflict is a power struggle for control of land and resources between North Yemeni kleptocrats and South Yemen, which has seventy-five per cent of Yemen's resources. A power sharing agreement between the warring sides that does not give the southern people autonomy and more control of their resources will only start a third war between north and south.
KD: What is the official position of Al-Hirak Movement on President Hadi and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh?
SA: The official position is that Ali Abdullah Saleh is the enemy of South Yemen and its people; he and his allies have killed southerners in their thousands since the civil war between north and south in 1994. He and his government, oppressed, marginalised, killed, imprisoned and tortured southerners and looted all southern land and resources.
The Southern Movement's official stance is with Hadi as the legitimate president. Even though southerners view him as a person who was part of Saleh's government that killed southerners, they forged an alliance of convenience with President Hadi mainly to protect the south from the Houthis and their ally Saleh.
KD: Is there cooperation between Al-Hirak and the Houthis? There are reports that the Houthis are negotiating common interests against Hadi to oust him from Aden.
SA: There's no cooperation between the movement and the Houthis. Those are rumours mostly pushed by Islah media who are against Al-Hirak and their aspiration for independence. The Houthi invasion of the south was so vicious and devastating that southerners will not forgive or forget.
KD: Has the movement allied with any armed groups to fight the Houthi-Saleh-Hadi parties?
SA: The Southern Movement is allied with the Arab Coalition led by Saudi Arabia and UAE. It is a peaceful movement and only picked up arms for self-defence against the Houthis and Saleh militia. Hadi is an ally of the Southern Movement.
KD: Will Al-Hirak ever accept negotiations led by the UN or the Saudi-led coalition?
SA: Since the beginning of the negotiations between the warring parties, the movement has called on the UN to bring southern representatives to the negotiating table.
KD: What is the Southern Hirak movement's official view of the Saudi-led coalition?
SA: The Southern Movement stands with and supports the Arab Coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
KD: There are reports that the UAE-backed Al-Hizam and Security Belt forces are using repressive tactics against the population in the Southern Yemen.
In particular, the Al-Hizam forces is alleged to have disrupted the funeral of Amjad Abdul Rahman Mohammed, a southern movement activist assassinated in Aden on 15 May. Locals claim that Al-Hizam forces accused him of apostasy and warned residents not to attend his funeral. Al-Hizam troops from the same brigade also abducted and tortured three journalists on charges of apostasy on 17 May. Hani Bin Brik, the vice president of the Transitional Political Council of the South, stated that media repression will not be tolerated on 17 May. Protesters from Lahij governorate gathered in Freedom Square in Aden to demand the handover of an Al-Hizam commander reportedly responsible for killing one of their tribesmen. AQAP's 14 May edition of Al-Masra newspaper highlighted several reported Al-Hizam abuses and framed AQAP's attacks on Al-Hizam targets as retribution.
Can you comment on the UAE-backed Al-Hizam/Security Belt forces and whether the abuse claims are accurate? What are the sentiments around these UAE-backed forces in the south and has this impacted relationship with the southern people?
SA: If you ask local people in Aden about Al-Hizam they will tell you that these are our sons, they protect us and thanks to them Aden no longer sees daily terrorist attacks. Southerners are thankful to the military and civil support that the UAE has provided to the south.
Amjad Abdual Rahman was a loved Southern Movement activist and the person accused of killing him is commander Imam Mohamed Alnubi who belongs to a radical faction of Islah. He and his men harass and target Southern Movement activists and secular residents in Aden.
Imam Alnubi commands the military Camp 20 in Crater Aden. Initially the camp was not part of the Al-Hizam forces because of the radical views of the commander and the soldiers of the camp. If you followed the news since Aden was liberated from Houthi forces, Camp 20 was constantly attacking other southern resistance factions and shooting mortars at local residential areas. In November last year local authorities in Crater Aden and commanders from Al-Hizam agreed to merge Camp 20 with Al-Hizam forces to end the constant clashes. They did end but that has come at another cost, where now Imam Alnubi and his men have turned to harassing local activists, journalists and secular people. Locals have called on President Hadi to dismantle the camp and turn it into a sports field but no response has been received from Hadi's government on this issue.
The Lahj tribesman incident with Al-Hizam was resolved on the same day because the Hizam commander was accused falsely. This doesn't mean that all Al-Hizam forces are angels; some have defied the law and have been reprimanded for their actions.